Pirates' Grilli ready to embark on ninth-inning chapter of his career

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, March 31, 2013, 11:04 p.m.

The evolution of the closer began in the late 1950s and early '60s, when guys like Elroy Face went from being part-time starters to full-time game-enders.

“There weren't many of them, but they set the trend,” Pirates spring training instructor Kent Tekulve said. “After everyone realized, ‘Hey, if you have one of these guys, it gives you a better chance to win,' everybody got one. That was phase one.”

In the early 1970s, setup men began to emerge. By the end of that decade, when Tekulve was flourishing as the Pirates' closer, a third phase began.

“We were one of the first teams to have the middle guy, which was Enrique Romo,” Tekulve said. “Since then, it's been seven-man bullpens, a lot more left/right specialists and stuff like that. That's just the game changing.”

In a way, then, Jason Grilli is a living, breathing snapshot of baseball's metamorphosis. Already in his odds-defying, decade-long career, Grilli has been a starter, a middle man, a specialist and a setup reliever. On Opening Day, five months after turning 36 years old, Grilli will begin his first season as a closer.

Does Grilli represent the next phase, a sort of uberpitcher? He grinned and shrugged.

“I look at myself as a guy who's figured out how to get three outs,” Grilli said. “A guy you want out there in crunch-time situations.”

The Pirates signed Grilli in July 2011 when he was trying to make a comeback in Philadelphia's farm system. He had pitched in the majors from 2000-09 but missed the entire 2010 season recovering from knee surgery. The Phillies had no spot for him, so they released Grilli so he could get another shot in the big leagues with the Pirates.

A year later, Grilli was working the eighth inning in front of closer Joel Hanrahan. Grilli racked up 45 holds and averaged 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings pitched, the fourth-best mark in the National League.

“He pitched to the middle of the lineup probably more times than Joel,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's always wanted more, but he's always accepted the role he's been given and done it to the best of his ability. What that has done is gotten him greater opportunities. We have every confidence in his makeup and his toughness.”

Ten days after re-signing Grilli to a two-year deal, the Pirates traded Hanrahan to Boston. Management never even thought about bringing in a free-agent closer. “It's Jason's job to keep,” general manager Neal Huntington said on the day Hanrahan was dealt.

Grilli has proven his stuff is plenty good enough to close games. But, there is something special about the ninth inning that requires a mental approach not every pitcher can muster.

“You've got to be nasty,” Grilli said. “If you don't get the job done, you're booed. Your pitch has to be spot-on, every time. That's why you've got to be a little kooky-crazy to be a reliever. There's no other way to deal with it.”

It's a bit unusual for a pitcher to become a closer at age 36. Then again, Grilli's career has not followed a normal trajectory, being derailed at times by limited opportunities and injuries.

“He's got tons of energy, probably the most on the team,” reliever Jared Hughes said. “There is that old saying, ‘You're as young as you feel.' In his case, I'd say he's in his mid-20s. He's been through so much already, the fact he's never been in that (closer's) role before is a minor factor. Closing games is going to pale in comparison to overcoming a massive leg injury like he did.”

Father Time usually is not kind to power arms. Grilli knows the two-year, $6.75 million contract he signed in December could be the last big payday of his career. He wants to make the most of this shot with the Pirates.

“Jason's actually taken the words, ‘I've got nothing to lose,' and brought them off a page to where they're not just words anymore,” Hurdle said. “It's the way he thinks. It's the way he conditions. It's the way he competes.”

Tekulve once said the best part about being a closer was standing alone on the mound in the middle of another team's ballpark and making 50,000 people all shut up at once. It's a good gig, but it comes with a lot of unique demands and pressures.

“Some guys can handle the ninth inning and others can't,” Tekulve said. “There are a lot of reasons Jason hasn't done this before — he didn't get the opportunity, the injuries. The only thing left is to send him out there and find out how he does in the ninth inning.

“There are no tests. There are no computers you can hook people up to, to find out who can and who can't do it. He's got the stuff. He's got a real good attitude. He's got a real short memory, which always helps. I think he's got a real good chance to be successful.”

Notes: Infielder Brandon Inge and pitchers Jeff Karstens, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton were placed on the 15-day disabled list Sunday, setting the team's 25-man roster. Inge's DL move is retroactive to March 26; the others are retroactive to March 22.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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